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A CurtainUp London Review
Tales from the Vienna Woods
by Lizzie Loveridge
Tales From the Vienna Woods is a small scale observation of life in Austria before Hitler came to power. Odön von Horváth of course could have little idea of the significance that his work would have in view of later political events and it worth remembering that much of our literature about the era between the two world wars was written with the benefit of hindsight.
The play centers around a "Jack the Lad", Alfred played by Joe Duttine, who when the play opens, is having an affair with Valerie the tobacconist and local vamp (Frances Barber). On a picnic for children Joe meets Marianne (Nicola Walker). She falls for him and ditches her fiancé, butcher Oskar played by Darrell d'Silva. Marianne father, toyshop owner Herr Spellbinder (Karl Johnson) disowns his daughter. Alfred and Marianne do not marry but have a baby and Alfred deserts Marianne who has to appear in a nightclub as a nude dancer. Meanwhile Valerie takes up with Erich (Paul Chequer), many years her junior and a member of the Hitler Youth.
It is not so much the narrative that is important but the texture of life in the 1930s which is significant about von Horváth's play. The production from the National which uses a backdrop of blank, giant, lacy edged postcards, with tuppence coloured views of mountains, waiting to be written, "Greetings From the Vienna Woods!", almost continuous accordion music from Strauss played by a lederhosen clad band was not to my taste. People circle on bicycles as Spellbinder makes a boring speech about his wife, maybe indicating that this a repetition, recycled content. Entertainment on the school picnic, games such as saying Moo Moo Moo doesn't engage me although the authentic knitted swimming costumes were amusing. Things did however improve after the interval when the club scenes called for more drink-led jollity and sentimental singing than the rather dull first half. The Zeppelin Cabaret scene with its enormous silver and black zucchini shaped phallus is ridiculous and accompanied by the German National Anthem. I kept thinking about Cabaret and how much better that play conveys Germany as Nazism started to take its grisly hold.
Marianne is arrested when a customer from the nightclub complains about her unjustly. The ending is sheer melodrama, the baby is neglected by Alfred's evil grandmother (Doreen Mantle), deliberately exposed to cold and dies. In a final scene, Marianne becomes a rag doll pulled along by Oskar to a Strauss "oom pa pa".
Erich the Nazi is played as a priggish caricature which diminishes the power of the growing influence of the Hitler Youth. If everyone had laughed at Hitler, he wouldn't have been able to gain political power.
Frances Barber is excellent as a Dietrich type femme fatale, cigarettes and blonde wig and a man eater. Nicola Walker looks downtrodden, clutching at a chance of romance which turns out badly. Karl Johnson's role is as characterful as ever. But on the whole, Richard Jones has given us a lack lustre production with an average cast, and even with seats at Ł10 on the Travelex scheme is unlikely to fill the National's largest theatre, the Olivier. The last time the National put on Tales From the Vienna Woods it was 1977.
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